The Horn of Africa is once again emerging as a hot spot in the battle for power in the periphery. On April 3, Eritrea accused Turkey, Qatar and Sudan of colluding to undermine the 2018 peace agreement it signed with Ethiopia. Whether or not there’s any truth to the allegation, it’s clear Eritrea wants the world to know that it sees Turkey’s intervention in the region as a threat to its interests – which include, most importantly, maintaining a detente with Ethiopia. Beyond this latest development, there is a network of state interests that are driving countries to form into new blocs, creating alliance structures in the Horn that look very different than they did a few years ago.
Eritrea and Ethiopia have a shared history, though in modern times they have been distinct entities. The United Nations federated Eritrea to Ethiopia in 1952, and Ethiopia annexed its neighbor a decade later. Eritrea fought a long war for its independence, which it finally gained in 1991, thrusting the two countries into a long freeze in relations. But Eritrea, devoid of democratic systems and rife with human rights abuses, was largely unwelcome in the international community.
The neighbors resumed diplomatic relations, somewhat suddenly, after signing a peace agreement last July. Ethiopia, it seemed, was driven to seek detente by developments in neighboring Djibouti. The split with Eritrea left Ethiopia landlocked, and it has had to depend on Djibouti for access to the Red Sea, which is critical for access to international markets. But tiny Djibouti is getting crowded. Several other foreign governments lease land for military bases and pay to access Djibouti’s ports. With world powers filling its coffers, Djibouti has little reason to consider Ethiopia’s interests. Ethiopia, then, had to look elsewhere – namely, Eritrea – for Red Sea access.
Ethiopia was not alone in this. Djibouti is strategically situated on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the chokepoint between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. At its narrowest, the distance between Djibouti and the coast of Yemen is only about 20 miles (32 kilometers). Djibouti hosts the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa; French, Italian and Japanese forces are stationed there; and China chose the country for its first foreign military base. China has a growing reputation for “debt trap diplomacy,” which it has used to threaten to capture strategic infrastructure – including ports – in places like Sri Lanka, Kenya and Pakistan. The U.S. is no doubt wary of depending too heavily on Djibouti; it, too, needs other options for access to the Red Sea. The United Arab Emirates had since 2015 also relied on Djibouti to host several of its bases, from which it launched airstrikes in Yemen. But after a diplomatic spat, the UAE and Djibouti severed relations. To keep up its airstrikes in Yemen, the UAE needed an alternative base. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, wants to ensure its ships can pass through the Red Sea so that it is not solely reliant on the Persian Gulf, a waterway its archrival Iran could theoretically block. Another Red Sea ally wouldn’t hurt.
So, with all eyes on Eritrea, the detente became more than just a bilateral affair; for these countries to achieve their strategic objectives, Eritrea had to be brought back into the fold. The U.S. and UAE both encouraged the thaw in relations, reportedly by passing messages between Eritrean and Ethiopian diplomatic installations. Saudi Arabia, which has long had close relations with Ethiopia, jumped into the fray, brokering a second peace agreement last September.
The implicit trade-off of the detente was this: In exchange for Ethiopia’s and its allies’ access to Eritrean ports, Eritrea would get relief from international sanctions and the threat on its western border. Indeed, in November 2018, the United Nations Security Council lifted sanctions on Eritrea as recompense for it improved relations with Ethiopia.
‘Acts of Subversion’
What interest could Ankara possibly have in trying to undermine this newfound peace – if, in fact, Eritrea’s accusations are true? The answer may lie in the other two countries Eritrea accused of participating in these “acts of subversion” – Sudan and Qatar.
Distrust between Eritrea and Sudan is nothing new. In January 2018, Sudan reportedly deployed thousands of soldiers to its border with Eritrea to stem the inflow of Eritrean refugees. Sudan fears a united, Ethiopia-led bloc in the Horn, given Ethiopia’s history of interference in Sudanese affairs, so renewed ties between Eritrea and Ethiopia are worrying. Still, late last year, Sudan announced that it would seek to normalize relations with Eritrea. Sudan has bigger fish to fry, however, and to handle its current domestic unrest, it has called in outside powers for support.
Since late 2018, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has faced nationwide protests, sparked by a spike in bread prices, that have posed a serious challenge to his rule. Al-Bashir has sought external support as he tries to maintain his grip on power. Saudi Arabia, which has since 2016 provided financial and military aid to Sudan, failed to support al-Bashir in his time of need. Instead, the Sudanese president got on a plane to Doha, Qatar, where he requested financial support, so his government could subsidize food prices and quell protesters’ frustrations. Saudi Arabia had led a blockade of Qatar since 2017 that was backed by just about every other Middle Eastern capital, so this move was in clear defiance of al-Bashir’s patron. Qatar wasn’t the only one to support al-Bashir during the protests. Photos leaked of private Russian security contractors in Sudan. Their presence was later confirmed by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said the contractors were training Sudan’s military and law enforcement agencies.
Enter Turkey. In December 2017, Ankara announced that it would partner with Sudan to revive the historical Ottoman port of Suakin in Sudan, which would give Turkey an excellent strategic foothold on the Red Sea from which to challenge Saudi Arabia. Then in January 2019, following the onset of protests against al-Bashir, Sudan’s oil minister revealed that Turkey, along with Russia and the UAE, had provided the government with aid, further undermining Saudi Arabia’s patronage. The rivalry between Ankara and Riyadh is playing out in political disputes such as the murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. But the competition runs much deeper; they are angling for position as leader of Sunni Muslims across the Middle East. By checking Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea, and perhaps interfering with the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace deal, Turkey can limit the broader Saudi-U.S.-Ethiopian alliance’s power in the Red Sea. Suakin port, once functional, could constrain Saudi ships’ passage through the Red Sea and Riyadh’s power more broadly. Sudan seems a willing partner in this Turkish venture.
While Saudi Arabia eventually issued tepid statements in support of al-Bashir, it provided no financial or military assistance (at least, not publicly). It did, however, seem to try to undermine the new partnership between Sudan and Turkey. Shortly before al-Bashir’s trip to Doha, a Sudanese National Congress Party leader claimed in an interview with Turkish publication Yeni Safak that an “unnamed country” had offered to provide financial support to Sudan to subsidize food prices, but only if it cut ties with Turkey. It was a barely-veiled reference to Saudi Arabia. (Perhaps Saudi Arabia sees the writing on the wall; it knows that Sudan’s allegiance can be bought, since its own investments managed to lure Sudan away from its long-standing alliance with Iran.) Sudan may be trying to play the bigger powers in the region against one another, but it may find that it’s actually a pawn in a larger game.
In the Other Corner
But it’s not just Turkey, Sudan, Russia and Qatar taking sides; there are other regional and global powers lining up in support of Eritrea, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even the United States – all of whom stand to benefit from the Ethiopia-Eritrea peace agreement.
An Ethiopian newspaper claimed that the January 2018 deployment of Sudanese troops to the Eritrean border was in response to Egypt sending its own forces to the Eritrean side. Whether Egypt really sent military assets to the Eritrea-Sudan border is unclear, but Egypt’s interests are not. It sees both Sudan and Ethiopia as potential threats to its lifeblood. Egypt is almost entirely reliant on the Nile River for its fresh water supply, and the Nile runs through Sudan and Ethiopia en route to Egypt. Either of the two countries could cut off Egypt’s access to the river. Egypt can tolerate a stable – perhaps even strong – Ethiopia, which could contribute to regional security. A strengthened Sudan, bankrolled by Turkey, is another story; Egypt sees Turkey as too close for comfort to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party that briefly held power in Egypt following the ouster of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak.
The United States seems firmly behind Eritrea and Ethiopia in their newfound peace. It makes sense for its ally Saudi Arabia, too, to get behind Eritrea; if its alliance with Sudan is at risk, Saudi Arabia would welcome a friend on the Red Sea’s western shore, and its Emirati ally needs Eritrea for bases from which it can launch airstrikes in Yemen.
Which brings us to the UAE – the wild card in this melee. While the Emiratis helped facilitate the Ethiopia-Eritrea detente, Sudan claims that the UAE supported its government during the protests. Given its reliance on Eritrea for its military bases, this would be a sign that the UAE is willing to play both sides. The UAE is part of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, but the UAE and Saudi Arabia have distinct interests in that war, and Emirati and Saudi proxy groups in Yemen have repeatedly clashed with one another. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s reliance on the Persian Gulf for transport of its oil exports makes it vulnerable to an Iranian blockade. If it can secure Yemen’s southern coastline, it has another access point to key trade routes via the Gulf of Aden. It also would be less reliant on other Red Sea states, like Eritrea – leaving its allegiance here in question.
The Horn of Africa is habitually in flux, and it’s now undergoing a series of shifts in allegiances. It’s unclear how exactly they will play out. But Eritrea’s latest proclamations, taken with other recent developments, suggest that countries are testing their new alliances – just what we’d expect to see in the early days of a major realignment.